Monthly Archives: January 2016

A Prayer on Sunday

Prayer in St Peter's Square in the RainAlmighty God, who are ever present in the world without me, in my spirit within me, and in the unseen world above me, let me carry with me through this day’s life a most real sense of your power and your glory.

O God without me, forbid that I should look today upon the work of your hands and give no thought to you the Maker. Let the heavens declare your glory to me and the hills your majesty. Let every fleeting loveliness I see speak to me of a loveliness that does not fade. Let the beauty of the earth be to me a sacrament of the beauty of holiness made manifest in Jesus Christ my Lord.

O God within me, give me grace today to recognise the stirrings of your Spirit within my soul and to listen most attentively to all that you have to say to me. Let not the noises of the world ever so confuse me that I cannot hear you speak. Suffer me never to deceive myself as to the meaning of your commands; and so let me in all things obey your will, through the grace of Jesus Christ my Lord.

O God above me, God who dwells in light unapproachable, teach me, I beseech you, that even my highest thoughts of you are but dim and distant shadowings of your transcendent glory. Teach me that if you are in nature, still more are you greater than nature. Teach me that if you are in my heart, still more are you greater than my heart. Let my soul rejoice in your mysterious greatness. Let me take refuge in the thought that you are utterly beyond me, beyond the sweep of my imagination, beyond the comprehension of my mind, your judgements being unsearchable and your ways past finding out.

O Lord, hallowed by your name. Amen.

(John Baillie, A Diary of Private Prayer, 73, adapted)


Hugh Latimer on Preaching

Hugh_LatimerOne of the martyrs of the English Reformation was Hugh Latimer, burned by Queen Mary for his Protestant convictions and activity. Formerly bishop of Worchester, Latimer “made considerable efforts to preach in a style that could appeal to ordinary people who were not expert theologians…He tried hard to offer them lively images to entertain and draw them with him, in a self-deprecatory manner” (Evans, The Roots of the Reformation, 435). He explains that he finds repetition helpful in teaching:

 I have a manner of teaching, which is very tedious to them that be learned. I am wont ever to repeat those things which I have said before, which repetitions are nothing pleasant to the learned: but it is no matter, I care not for them; I seek more the profit of those which be ignorant, than to please learned men. Therefore I oftentimes repeat such things which be needful for them to know; for I would speak so that they might be edified withal (in Evans, 436).

I remember a minister many years ago saying, “Good preaching is not in the pulpit, but in the pew.”

James’ Love Command – Victor Paul Furnish

Victor Paul FurnishThe parenetic tract of James is a loosely arranged collection of traditional admonitions designed to provide practical moral guidance. The author believes that Christians are in constant danger of being corrupted by worldly standards and values (1:27). If one is a “friend” of the world he cannot be a “friend of God” (4:4). Truly to “love God” (1:12; 2:5) means to resist the allures of one’s base worldly desires (1:13-14). The author’s other and more famous formulation of this idea is: “faith without works is dead” (2:14ff.) (Furnish, The Love Command, 175).

In his discussion of the love command in James 2, Furnish asks whether James identifies love as the very essence of the Christian law. Can James, as Wendland has suggested, be called an “apostle of love”? Furnish answers his question in the negative:

It would appear that the commandment of Lev. 19:18 is regarded as one among many which are to be kept by the faithful Christian. In itself it does not constitute or even summarize the essence of the “royal law.” This phrase designates “the whole law” with its various commandments (v. 10).  (179-180)

Furnish argues that the terms “royal law,” “perfect law,” and “law of liberty” are synonymous terms, “used to characterize the whole Christian message of salvation” also referred to by the terms “word,” “the word of truth,” “the implanted word,” etc. (180-181). This means that James’ vision of Christian life, as Furnish understands it, “has a nomistic structure,” although he also argues that Christian obedience is not simply identified with keeping the Old Testament law: for James, only the ethical demands of the law are significant and relevant for the Christian (177). For Furnish, then, James does not refer to Leviticus 19:18 because Jesus taught it as part of the double-command: “it is explicitly commended as authoritative because it is scriptural, not because it is a command from Jesus” (177).

While this writer surely understands love of one’s neighbor to be a vital component of the Christian life, he hardly deserves to be called “an ‘apostle’ of love.” His exhortations proceed not from a declaration of God’s gift and demand of love but from his conviction that the “royal” and “perfect law of liberty” is the embodiment of wisdom. This wisdom is the essence of God’s gift, to be sought and received by faith and then exhibited in an upright life. … Paul’s ethic develops from his gospel that love is the controlling and sustaining power of salvation (the new age) already inaugurated in Christ’s death and resurrection. The ethical teaching of James stands in the wisdom tradition of Hellenistic Judaism. Obedience is not viewed as one’s acceptance and expression of Christ’s love but as performance of the new law. This is called “royal,” “perfect,” and the “law of liberty” because its commandments are understood to be exclusively ethical and to require concrete moral deeds. When it is held that “pure religion” is helping those in need (1:27), the point is not to exalt the love command as normative for all ethical action, but that religion finds its true expression in the moral life, not in the cultic (181-182).


Furnish evidently considers James as a Hellenistic work, probably later rather than early, and having its provenance in the Hellenistic rather than Palestinian world. He sees James’ understanding of the law as shaped by Hellenistic Judaism, evidenced in the terminology used: “law of liberty” is found first amongst the Stoics, then in Hellenistic Judaism; “perfect” is a term used in Judaism for the whole law (cf. Ps. 19:7); and there are precedents in Hellenistic Judaism for speaking of a “royal law” (180). This provenance diminishes the idea of James standing in a Messianic Jewish context decisively shaped by his elder brother.

His view of James as concerned with moral rather than cultic aspects of the law is certainly correct, and his understanding of James as standing in a Hellenistic wisdom tradition is intriguing; there is much in James that celebrates wisdom as God’s good gift, and which associates wisdom with moral virtue.

Nevertheless, James 2:5 does speak of those who “love God,” and also speaks of the basileia—the same word used to describe the “royal” law. Further, the association of the love command with mercy in 2:13—a text Furnish dismisses as “a separable maxim only loosely connected with the paragraphs to which it has been attached” (178), suggests that, contrary to Furnish, James views the whole section of 2:1-13 in terms of mercy—practical love expressed toward those in need. If this is the case, then the love of command of Jesus may well be seen in this text, which in turn leads us to commend Davids’ view rather than that of Furnish, that is, that James viewed the law, not simply as the whole Mosaic Law or at least the ethical aspects of it, but that law as it was mediated by Jesus, “the Old Testament ethic as explained and altered by Jesus… [i.e.] the teaching of Jesus” (Davids, 100). Then verses 10-11 are read merely as a rhetorical gesture rather than as James insisting that every aspect of the Old Testament (moral) remains binding for the Christian. Nor does this view require the loss of Furnish’s emphasis on James as standing in a wisdom tradition, but rather supports it, for in 3:17 that wisdom which is from above is “full of mercy and good fruits.”

Scripture on Sunday – James 2:13

JamesJames 2:13
For judgement will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgement.

Although we examined this verse last week, I want to linger over it another week, and particularly the idea of mercy which makes its first appearance in James’ letter, in this verse. Some commentators, noting the proverbial nature of the verse that we discussed last week, see it as a free-floating proverb that has little connection with the passage overall. For example, Victor Furnish suggests that the verse is “a separable maxim only loosely connected with the paragraphs to which it has been attached” (Furnish, The Love Command in the New Testament, 178). Peter Davids agrees that 2:13 “originally existed as a free-floating proverb” (118), but disagrees with Furnish’s conclusion that it has little or no connection to the context. Regardless of whether the verse had a pre-history as a separate proverb, I must agree with Davids against Furnish; this verse brings the entire section of 2:1-13 to its climax, despite the fact that James has not previously used the term “mercy.” What is the origin of this term, and what significance does it have in this context?

According to Canales, “mercy has its roots in the OT idea of the infinite love of God for a helpless and needy covenantal partner” (Dictionary of the Later New Testament & Its Developments, 736). In perhaps the most central creedal declaration of the divine character given in the Old Testament we hear, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Exodus 34:6-7). This foundational declaration is cited and repeated time and again in the Old Testament as the cornerstone of the divine character (see, for example, Nehemiah 9:17; Psalm 103:8-17; 145:8-9; Joel 2:13; Jonah 4:2; Nahum 1:2-3).

The Old Testament narrative of redemption therefore identifies God as a merciful God who has shown mercy to his people. This narratival portrayal of the divine character provides a twofold foundation for mercy as a moral imperative for the people of God. First, just as God is characterised by mercy, so God’s people are to be merciful. The imitatio Dei (imitation of God) is a key principle of Old Testament ethics. Second, just as God has been merciful to his people, so they, as the recipients of his mercy, are to show mercy in their relations with others. This moral imperative is particularly evident in several prophetic texts:

He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God (Micah 6:8)

The word of the Lord came to Zechariah, saying:  Thus says the Lord of hosts: Render true judgements, show kindness and mercy to one another; do not oppress the widow, the orphan, the alien, or the poor; and do not devise evil in your hearts against one another (Zechariah 7:8-10).

The Old Testament witness to the mercy of God and the concomitant responsibility that this lays on God’s people comes to expression especially in the teaching of Jesus. Jesus’ fifth beatitude is the positive equivalent of James 2:13: “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy” (Matthew 5:7). Here, a merciful life grounds a promise of mercy in the judgement. This promise is made explicit in Matthew 18 in Jesus’ parable of the Unforgiving Servant, where the king says to the wicked servant, “Should you not also have had mercy on your fellow slave, in the same way that I had mercy on you?” (verse 33). Being a recipient of divine mercy obliges the recipient to show mercy to others in the same way that God has shown mercy to them. In Matthew 5:48 Jesus admonishes his disciples to “be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect,” thus insisting that God’s character is the measure of the Christian’s character. Significantly, Luke’s record of Jesus’ saying is, “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:36). In these samples of Jesus’ teaching, the twofold foundation for Old Testament ethics is reiterated.

Further statements in the gospels indicate that Jesus understood mercy as a central characteristic of discipleship. In Matthew 9:17 he challenges his opponents saying, “Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’” Later in the same gospel he rebukes them, “But if you had known what this means, “I desire mercy and not sacrifice”, you would not have condemned the guiltless” (Matthew 12:7). He tears strips off them in Matthew 23:23: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practised without neglecting the others.” Finally, in his parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus asks,

“Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise” (Luke 10:36-37).

All these texts show clearly that for Jesus, mercy is a central characteristic of both the Jesus tradition and the life of his followers as he envisaged it. The final example from the parable of the Good Samaritan is particularly significant because (a) it displays the practical nature of mercy, and (b) ties this practice of mercy to the Leviticus love commandment that one must love their neighbour.

Returning to James 2, then, I affirm that James’ words in verse thirteen have the closest connection with the preceding verses. In the face of partiality and prejudice within the congregation, in which the poor specifically, have been dishonoured, James insists on love of neighbour. This love, however, is to take the practical form of mercy. Mercy is that form of love which visits the orphan and the widow in their distress (1:27). That is, mercy is not simply an attitude but an action. It does not remain aloof and uninvolved in the face of the affliction and distress of others but is moved to help in practical and sometimes costly ways. It images, however poorly, the mercy of the merciful God who entered into our brokenness and misery making it his own in order to lift us into fellowship with himself.

Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.
Mercy triumphs over judgement.

Centenary – “The Righteousness of God”

young barth100 years ago this week—Sunday evening January 16, 1916—Karl Barth delivered a lecture at City Church of Aarau, Switzerland. The lecture, entitled “The Righteousness of God” is his first major piece of work after his break with the liberal theology of his student years. It is also the lecture that Barth chose to stand at the head of his first collection of occasional essays published in 1924. Two English translations exist, the first in The Word of God and the Word of Man (1928, 1956), and more recently a new translation in a critical edition by Amy Marga in The Word of God and Theology (2011).

The lecture is much like a sermon in its structure, rhetoric and passion, and includes potent imagery and thought. Barth in early 1916 is still operating with a Kantian understanding of conscience, and already evident is the kind of “process eschatology” (McCormack) that will emerge full-blown in his first commentary on Romans (1918/1919) and be decisively rejected in his second commentary on Romans in 1921. Thus in this lecture Barth is still emerging from the theology of his student years.

In my commentary on this lecture (see my Church as Moral Community, 58-64) I note that the lecture is a meditation on two wills, the will of God and human will. It is not an abstract reflection, however, on the age-old theological conundrum about the relation of divine and human willing, but is oriented rather to the form of life that emerges from each of these wills:

Whereas the absurd and senseless will of the world results in oppression and suffering, God’s will heard and recognised will result in ‘another life,’ and the arising of ‘a new world’. For this to occur, declares Barth, ‘we must let conscience speak for…it remains forever the place, the only place between heaven and earth, in which God’s righteousness is manifest’ (59).

Here are some citations from the lecture, taken from the earlier translation.

When we let conscience speak to the end, it tells us not only that there is something else, a righteousness above unrighteousness, but also—and more important—that this something else for which we long and which we need is God.…We make a veritable uproar with our morality and culture and religion. But we may presently be brought to silence, and with that will begin our true redemption (Barth, Word of God and Word of Man, 23-24).

Barth assails our fervent religious activity by which we endeavour to protect ourselves against God, and against the claim his righteousness makes on us:

What is the use of all the preaching, baptizing, confirming, bell-ringing, and organ-playing, of all the religious moods and modes, the counsels of ‘applied religion’…the efforts to enliven church singing, the unspeakably tame and stupid monthly church papers, and whatever else may belong to the equipment of modern ecclesiasticism? Will something different eventuate from all this in our relation to the righteousness of God?…Are we not rather hoping by our very activity to conceal in the most subtle way the fact that the critical event that ought to happen has not yet done so and probably never will? (Barth, 20, emphasis added).

Barth rejects in the most vigorous terms any form of Christianity which would isolate itself from the wider social context in which it is found. Privatised religion is escapist and self-indulgent in its orientation, and actually suppresses the righteousness of God which confronts humanity in conscience. The true church, and therefore, true Christianity, is that which arises when the voice of conscience is allowed to speak:

In the midst of the old world of war and money and death.…Lights of God rise in the darkness, and powers of God become real in weakness. Real love, real sincerity, real progress become possible; morality and culture, state and nation, even religion and the church now become possible—now for the first time! One is taken with the vision of an immortality or even of a future life here on earth in which the righteous will of God breaks forth, prevails, and is done as it is in heaven (Barth, 25-26).

The lecture itself is quite short and easily read. Although written 100 years ago in the midst of World War I, its message is still very relevant indeed. I found a copy of the new translation on Google books. I don’t know how those websites work, if they always show the same sections of the books, or not, but the whole lecture was there when I checked it. I highly recommend it!

Scripture on Sunday – James 2:13

JamesJames 2:13
For judgement will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgement.

In verse twelve James warned his hearers to speak and act in light of the coming judgement. This verse supports that warning and provides an understanding of the grounds upon which judgement will be exercised.

Some scholars (e.g. Davids, 118-119) suggest that the verse had a prehistory as a free-floating proverb which James now co-opts. Certainly the verse has the terse expression of a proverb, shifts from second person address in verse twelve to the third person here, and introduces a term (“mercy”) not used previously in the letter. Whether this proposal is true or not need not detain us here: the proverb fits the context perfectly. James’ common practice of linking verses by means of common terminology occurs here also, with the terms krisis (“judgement”) and poieō (“act, show”) appearing in both verses. Further, although “mercy” has not yet appeared in this letter, James clearly uses the terminology elsewhere in the letter (3:17), and in 5:11 follows the common Old Testament practice of ascribing mercy to the character of God.

The first section of the verse is the negative equivalent of the fifth beatitude in Matthew’s collection (see Matthew 5:7). Whereas Jesus stated the truth positively (“Blessed are the merciful for they shall receive mercy”), James does so negatively: “For judgement will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy” (Hē gar krisis aneleos tō mē poiēsanti eleos). Here the basis of the coming judgement is whether or not one has been merciful toward others—precisely the issue at stake in James’ community, where certain members of the congregation have dishonoured the poor man (v. 6). Not only does mercy reflect the way that God is merciful (cf. 5:11), it is also a practical expression of the royal law which anchors this section (vv. 8-13), and further, a clear example of the kind of true religion which visits the orphan and the widow in their affliction (1:27). As such, James’ use of a new term here is entirely fitting. Indeed, the passage as a whole suggests that showing mercy to the poor is precisely what James means when he cites the love commandment in verse eight. God’s people “do well” (v. 8; kalōs poieite) when they “so act” (v. 12; houtōs poieite) in mercy. Conversely, those who do not “show mercy” (v.13; tō mē poiēsanti eleos) can expect nothing in the judgement. The idea that God might be merciless in judgement is a terrifying prospect, one which was more real to people in earlier ages than is usually the case today.

The second part of the verse is just three words in Greek: katakauchatai eleos kriseōs (“mercy triumphs over judgement”). I must admit being glad for finally reaching this phrase, as I have wondered about its meaning for many years. Katakauchatai (kata + kauchaomai) means to “boast against” or “override,” and so “triumph over” (Verwick-Grosvenor, 695; Vlachos, 83).

Does James mean that one attribute is superior to another in an absolute sense, especially with respect to the attributes of God? Although such an interpretation may be possible, it seems better, given the context in which James has developed his argument, to apply the phrase to human hopes in face of divine judgement rather than to a supposed hierarchy of attributes within the divine being. Whereas those who fail to show mercy cannot expect to receive mercy in the judgement, those who show mercy will find that they receive mercy. That judgement, which otherwise might legitimately have fallen on them, passes over them.

James’ argument raises at least two interesting questions. First, is he arguing for a kind of works-righteousness, whereby a person is justified by what they do rather than what Christ has done on their behalf? This is an argument with a long pedigree, and James will confront it directly in the second half of the chapter. Second, if my comment on this verse is legitimate, that is, that James sees in mercy the fulfilment of the love command, where did this view originate, and how adequate is it? Both these questions will be addressed next week and in future examination of the second half of the chapter.

Outgrowing Christianity?

candle-blown-outA couple of weeks ago I was browsing blogs and read Rachel Held Evans’ post “On ‘Outgrowing’ American Christianity.” Evans is speaking of a particular kind of evangelical Christianity, and notes especially, the situatedness of all theological reflection. One of her correspondents, however, goes further, and speaks of outgrowing Christianity, and not simply a particular expression of it:

Leaving the evangelical church for a more liturgical church (Anglican and Episcopal) was my first step towards atheism. What began as an earnest soul-searching attempt to deepen my faith, thanks in part to the gay marriage debate, led our devout Christian family towards the search for another denomination. In researching the various denominational stances on gay marriage and other issues, we ended up towards the Episcopal end of the spectrum. Eventually, after months and then years of searching for the right church for our family, we gave up on organized religion. Our search exposed the same ugliness and patterns in every denomination we explored. Letting go of organized religion was shocking and absolutely the last thing I ever expected would happen to us. But I’ve never felt so FREE – so in love with humanity for the sake of humanity, itself. A Christian can ABSOLUTELY “just stop being religious.” I did. My husband did. Our family did. As I grappled with why my soul felt so liberated, and continued to study and search and read, I had no choice but to become an agnostic, and ultimately an atheist. I see the world through a much clearer lens now. Ironically, letting go of religion, and eventually any concept of God, has given my heart the capacity to love others like never before.

In a follow-up comment answering a question from a second correspondent, the woman continues:

I will tell you that my experience, including the order of events towards agnosticism and ultimately atheism, is a very common one among those who de-convert from Christianity. The actual desire to deepen one’s faith/study apologetics/sharpen one’s ability to defend one’s beliefs intelligently has led quite a few down the path I’ve taken. I have read many, many stories of Christians who were searching and ended up on the exact same path: at first bandaging the issues with a new denomination…which eventually revealed the man-made ugliness and restrictions of all denominations…which led to questioning organized religion…which led to abandoning organized religion…which led to embracing agnosticism…which ultimately led to atheism. I’m grossly oversimplifying this, of course. It was an agonizing journey, full of late nights and sleepless weeks. It started three to four years ago for me, but really ramped up over the summer and early fall. I lost my faith ultimately in a matter of months. It is one of the most difficult, if not THE most difficult, times in my life.

The woman who styles herself, “Lost My Southern Graces,” is a closet atheist. She has not yet told her extended family or friends of her de-conversion: she is sure they will not understand, and that she will certainly lose her friends. She jokes that her community will “eat me alive.”

Why do some people walk away from the church? More deeply, why do some people walk away from faith itself? Although every person’s story will be uniquely theirs, I also imagine that there are some common threads which unite many of these stories. I certainly recognise aspects of my own story in hers, although ultimately, I ended up with faith renewed rather than faith lost.

In a recent sermon I identified five reasons for doubt including lack of opportunity, disillusionment with the church, moral, experiential and intellectual factors. It seems the second and fifth factors have played a role in “Lost My Southern Graces’” loss of faith. I resonate with her desire for a more aesthetic worship experience; evangelical worship is sometimes akin to a dry cracker biscuit at dinner time. But aesthetics alone are unlikely to sustain a rich and mature faith. The root of my own quite profound experience of doubt had its genesis in an intellectual approach to Scripture and faith. After being raised in a Roman Catholic family, I found my own faith in a quite fundamentalist Pentecostal sect which emphasised the truthfulness of the bible but in a very naive and idiosyncratic way. After about fifteen years with that group I began broadening my theological horizons, eventually taking a degree in theology during which I was introduced to critical study of the scriptures. “Lost My Southern Graces” is right: many a Christian’s faith has floundered on these shoals.

My boat almost capsized. For about two years I thrashed about this way and that, now so very uncertain of the sureties I had previously held. I no longer knew whether or not I could trust the Bible, believe in God, Jesus, heaven, or anything else. In hindsight, my faith was real enough. What was utterly insufficient for the impact of formal theological studies was the intellectual framework that surrounded and supported it. When that intellectual framework began to collapse, it felt as though my faith would also fail. But for the grace of God, it may have. It is possible to tear down and substitute a Christian intellectual framework with a more rationalist or secular worldview, and in so doing depart from the faith one once held. My problem was even more basic: my Christian intellectual framework was under-developed. I liken it to a primary-school understanding of Christian faith trying to withstand the assault of tertiary-level critical studies. In cases like this, something has to give and often, it is the faith that gives. This is part of the reason (not the only reason of course) why so many young Christians flounder when they enter university studies.

What helped me tremendously was undertaking a directed study programme toward the end of my undergraduate degree on Scripture, Revelation and Authority during which I had to research and write two major papers. The first was an analysis and assessment of various Evangelical approaches to biblical authority, and the second an analysis and assessment of Karl Barth’s doctrines of revelation and scripture. The first paper helped me discover that one can hold a high view of scripture in a number of different ways, and that some models, indeed, are much better than others. But it was Karl Barth who really helped me. Although I do not go all the way with Barth, it was his trinitarian and christological approach to revelation and scripture that gave me the intellectual framework I needed for a more adequate doctrine of scripture capable of intelligent engagement with the world of critical study and of sustaining a devotional practice whereby the bible functions in a sacramental way in my life, a vehicle for the presence, wisdom, and encounter with God.

That was almost twenty years ago. I still face doubts from time to time but do so now from a position of greater understanding. My faith has been deepened and enriched. I am quite aware of the contingent nature of faith now, and hopefully I no longer exhibit the triumphalist and somewhat arrogant note that once I think I did.

“My” faith? Yes. My faith is genuinely mine in the sense that it is my response to, and decision in the light of, God’s initiating movement of grace toward me. But in a deeper and much more wonderful sense, it is not mine at all. More than anything else I have come to realise that it is not me that holds onto him, but he who holds onto me.

I have found that God is greater, even than our unbelief. “Lost My Southern Graces” has outgrown the church, outgrown Christianity, outgrown even, she says, the concept of God. My hope though, is that she can never outgrow God himself.

As for me, I found I could not outgrow Christianity, but my understanding of Christian faith had been outgrown and needed to grow up. When it did grow up, I found a large and roomy house, and even some of those rooms which still hold difficult questions find a place in this lovely and light-filled house.

My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me; and I give eternal life to them, and they will never perish; and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. (John 10:27-29)

Back from a Break

Outofoffice_thinkstockI have had a few weeks of holiday, enjoying doing very little, except being at home, seeing friends, taking care of a few small maintenance items, doing a little – not much! – reading, and watching some of the Hopman Cup. But I am back at work now, and hopefully other regular routines (like blogging) will kick in as well. So I apologise to all those avid readers who wait breathlessly for each new post…

To start off, here are a few articles that may be of interest.
1. Mark Galli at Christianity Today has written a piece on the controversy that has erupted at Wheaton College over Professor Hawkins’ claim that Christians and Muslims worship the same God. Galli’s article is not about the issue per se, but how those in theological institutions deal with doctrinal and relational differences.

2. Over at Books and Culture Ron Sider argues once more that the pre-Constantinian church was pacifist in orientation, even if not every Christian practised this.

On the other hand, there is not a single extant Christian author before Constantine who says killing or joining the military by Christians is ever legitimate. Whenever our extant texts mention killing—whether in abortion, capital punishment, or war—they always say Christians must not do that…

That a growing number of Christians, especially in the late 3rd and early 4th centuries, acted contrary to that teaching is also clear. That in doing so they were following other Christian teachers and leaders who justified their conduct, we cannot deny with absolute certainty. But we have no evidence to support the suggestion that such teachers ever existed until the time of Constantine.

3. The Monthly included an article entitled “A Rich History of Failure: Australian History According to Undergraduates.” Comprised of excerpts from genuine undergraduate history essays across Australia, and compiled by Professor Neve R. Stenning-Stihl, it makes for fun reading. It includes such detail as:

British migrants who came to Australia from 1788 didn’t bring much cultural baggage because the boats were so small. On the convict ships, bibles were given to convicts and women. Women ripped out the pages for hair curls. This was to teach moral upright behaviour.

4. While on holidays I saw on Matt Malcolm’s blog that renowned British Evangelical i-howard-marshallscholar I. Howard Marshall had passed away. Although I am not a New Testament scholar I have greatly benefited from Marshall’s work in New Testament Theology, his little books on Biblical Inspiration and Beyond the Bible? Moving Beyond Scripture to Theology, and other occasional essays. If I was studying a passage in the New Testament and Marshall had a commentary on it, I would examine his work on the passage. As a British evangelical, Marshall did not seem as constrained or as conservative as some of his American counterparts, and his scholarship was always of the highest order. Stanley Porter has written A Brief Tribute.

The Twelfth Day of Christmas

Underhill QuoteThe Christmas mystery has two parts: the nativity and the epiphany. A deep instinct made the church separate these two feasts. In the first we commemorate God’s humble entrance into human life, the emergence and birth of the holy, and in the second its manifestation in the world, the revelation of the supernatural made in that life. And the two phases concern our inner lives very closely too. The first only happens in order that the second may happen, and the second cannot happen without the first…

The birth of Christ in our souls is for a purpose beyond ourselves: it is because his manifestation in the world must be through us. Every Christian is, as it were, part of the dust-laden air which shall radiate the glowing epiphany of God, catch and reflect his golden Light. Ye are the light of the world—but only because you are enkindled, made radiant by the one Light of the world. And being kindled, we have go to get on with it, be useful.

Evelyn Underhill
(English mystic, 1875-1941)

Scripture on Sunday – James 2:12

JamesJames 2:12
So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty.

In verses 12-13 James brings his discussion of partiality in the congregation to a climax. Because partiality is a violation of the love command, and because violation of the law in a single aspect renders one guilty of the whole law, his hearers are to “so speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty” (houtōs laleite kai houtōs poieite hōs dia nomou eleutherias mellontes krinesthai).

The double use of houtōs (“so”) serves to emphasise James’ point, as well as tie the exhortation to the clause which follows; that is, houtōshoutōshōs (so speak and so act as those…). Laleite and poieite are both present imperatives, and together cover the whole of the believer’s public life—their speech and their activity. All they say and all they do is to be said and done in light of the coming judgement.

The prominence and severity of judgement as a New Testament theme is often under-estimated by believers in the contemporary church, nurtured as we are on a vision of a gracious and merciful God. Yet the reality of divine judgement is central to the New Testament vision, being found in the teaching of Jesus, Paul, Peter, John, Hebrews, Jude and James, and providing the rationale for the proclamation of the gospel. In 4:12 James will affirm that “there is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the One who is able to save and to destroy.” In 5:9 he warns that “behold, the Judge is standing right at the door.” In verses 9-11 he implies the theme of judgement by referring to his hearers as “transgressors,” and speaking of those who are liable for the whole law. For James, this judgement is certain, and probably in his mind, imminent. His congregation, along with all believers, are certain to face the judgement (mellontes krinesthai).

This judgement will be in accordance with “the law of liberty” (dia nomou eleutherias). James has used this phrase already in 1:25, and its use again here suggests that the whole section on partiality be considered together with James’ discussion of true religion and active Christianity. In our discussion of the phrase in 1:25, we found that the “perfect law of liberty” refers to “the Old Testament ethic as explained and altered by Jesus… [i.e.] the teaching of Jesus” (Davids, 100). Important also is James’ reference to the “royal law” in 2:8, identifying the love command for one’s neighbour as the centre and sum of the whole law. So, too, in verse 13, he will summarise this law in the single term “mercy.” If the coming judgement is the lens through which we are to conduct our lives, the law—especially the love commandment, and its enactment through concrete practices of mercy toward the poor—is the measure by which our lives will be measured.